Santa Claus is real, and he’s as German as Christmas itself

How many of season’s traditions took root in dear old Deutschland? Yule be surprised!

Marzipan is another Christmas tradition and, though not exclusively a German speciality, the queen of marzipan hails from the northern city of Lübeck

Marzipan is another Christmas tradition and, though not exclusively a German speciality, the queen of marzipan hails from the northern city of Lübeck

 

“Yes, Virginia, ” to quote the famous New York Sun editorial to a doubtful eight-year-old in 1897, “there is a Santa Claus” – one of the chapters that played a key role in the American commercialisation of Christmas.

However, gentle reader, Santa Claus is German. In fact, much of the Christmas you know and love is German, even if the Germans are circumspect about taking credit. Ply them with schnapps, however, and they will soon insist that the only Christmas is a German Christmas.

But where were we, Virginia? Ah yes, Santa Claus. You know, of course, that there are many sources of inspiration for the fat, red-suited one, including St Nicholas, bishop of Myra and the Dutch Sinterklaas.

But the Santa Claus icon we know so well – obese, white beard, round cheeks, smiling madly – was largely the creation of Thomas Nast. The cartoonist worked for Harpers Weekly magazine, among other publications and, in the middle of the US civil war, decided that people needed something to cheer them up at Christmas.

Because social media cat pictures were still some way off, Nast sketched images of a fat man from the North Pole with an armful of presents. His jovial image of Santa Claus became so potent in the public consciousness that it was later lifted by Coca-Cola.

Perhaps we should be grateful they didn’t try to sell their fizzy drink with another of Nast’s influential caricatures: the drunken, fighting Irishman.

Yes, Virginia, there is a point to all this. Where do you think Thomas Nast was born? In Landau, Germany. Germany’s contribution to Christmas doesn’t end there.

If St Nicholas was the original inspiration for Santa, why don’t we exchange presents on his feast day, December 6th? The Germans say it was because Martin Luther, the German head of the Reformation, was wary of saints and, from 1535 on, pushed December 24th/25th as the Christian present-giving alternative.

Fir branches

Europe

And, like today with Christmas lights, no doubt a few Germanen went overboard and soon a few branches had given way to an entire tree and a new tradition.

The people of Freiburg in southern Germany have one of the earliest claims on a public Christmas tree. In 1419 the local bakers erected a tree in the town square from the nearby Black Forest, decorated with nuts and fruit.

Throughout history the most influential ambassadors for German Christmas traditions at home and abroad were aristocratic families who married into many of Europe’s royal households.

Queen Victoria gave Christmas a royal push in Britain from 1840, in particular the tree tradition, but it was all thanks to a German mother and her husband, Prince Albert, from the house of Hanover.

While the first recorded Christmas was celebrated in AD336 under Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, it was Germans who played the key role in reviving it in the 18th and 19th century as a family feast.

And those same Germans brought their traditions with them when they emigrated across the Atlantic, turning the glittery Christmas of trees and presents into a transatlantic phenomenon.

One of the earliest Christmas trees on record in the US was in 1781, decorated by Baroness Frederika Charlotte von Riedesel, born in Brandenburg.

Her German-born husband General Adolph von Riedesel returned from the War of Indepedence after fighting on the losing side and needed cheering up, so his wife found and decorated a fir tree in the German style.

And while US inventor Thomas Edison wowed the world with the first electric tree lights in 1882, Germans had been illuminating their trees for years with candles.

Crucial to not burning down the house were steady candles and it was a German – Anton Clemens Theodor Keitel, from Leipzig – who invented in 1875 the first wobble-free candle-holders for Christmas tree branches, which he exported around the world.

Like candles, trees wobbled dangerously on stands for many a year until Bavaria’s Klaus Krinner invented and patented the non-wobble Christmas-tree stand in 1987.

Decorative baubles

It was a German chemist, Justus Liebig, who found a way to coat the balls in glittery silver nitrate in 1870, ending the practice of coating the child-friendly glass baubles in equally child-friendly lead.

Germany’s eastern Erzgebirge mountains is perhaps the most Christmassy region in the world, producing wooden toys for global consumption long before the industrial revolution. We can thank the Erzgebirge families, too, for their tradition of Christmas illumination – lighting up their windows with scenes made from carved wood decorations to welcome miners home.

Before I let you go, Virginia, did you know that the Advent wreath originated with Germany’s Lutherans, too? And tinsel, that Christmas tree staple, was invented in 1878 in Nuremberg.

The Bavarian city is home to one of the oldest Christmas markets – established in 1628 – though Dresden says its market is even older, first mentioned in 1434.

Perhaps it’s going too far to hand sole credit – or blame – to Germany for Christmas. But sociologists agree that the “ideal Christmas” thrived first here because, during the 18th and 19th century Christmas revival, the über-Christmassy concepts of Gemütlichkeit (coziness) and Geborgenheit (a sense of security, usually in the close family unit) chimed perfectly with the 19th-century German national character in desperate search of a nation state.

Gingerbread

AldiLidl

Though the modern Lebkuchen or gingerbread can be traced back to the Belgian town of Dinant, it was in 14th-century Nuremberg that gingerbread began to flourish. Nuremberg’s blue ribbon category, Elisenlebucken, has to legally contain at least 25 per cent almonds or other nuts. The common ingredients are the addictive three Cs: cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.

Another German retailer favourite is the Spekulatius, often repackaged as “Spiced Biscuits”, that possibly originated in the Rhineland.

You either love or hate Germany’s answer to the Christmas cake – the Stollen – which dates back to 15th-century Dresden, and is a dry fruitcake containing dried fruit, fruit peel and spices and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Marzipan is another Christmas tradition and, though not exclusively a German speciality, the queen of marzipan hails from the northern city of Lübeck. It was first mentioned here in 1530, and the city’s marzipan manufacturers still insist that theirs contains at least 70 per cent almonds.

So, Virginia, in answer to your question: yes, there is a Santa Claus, just as there are Christmas trees, decorations and sweet Christmas treats. And they are all German. Frohe Weihnachten!